If your child had croup, you'd certainly know it. That's because croup produces a cough that sounds much like a barking seal. Croup is an infection of the throat and vocal cords (called laryngitis in children over 5 years old) that is caused by a virus.

Many viruses can cause croup, including influenza virus, adenovirus, and measles. Since children under 5 years old have smaller airways that are more prone to swelling, they commonly develop the classic croup cough.

Symptoms of croup

Croup usually starts with symptoms that are similar to the common cold, such as a runny or stuffy nose and a fever. Your child's voice may get raspy or hoarse and they will eventually develop the barky cough. If the throat becomes severely swollen, your child may have difficulty breathing and develop stridor (a high pitched squeaking sound) when inhaling. This is where you have to be extra cautious with croup.

If a child with croup has significant trouble breathing or stridor, it is a medical emergency and you should get medical help right away. Your child may need corticosteroids, epinephrine, or other treatments to open the airways.

In addition, you should see a doctor right away if your child's skin becomes blue or grey around the nose, mouth, or fingernails, and if he or she is drooling or having difficulty swallowing, or has a fever and is less than 6 months old or has had a fever for more than 3 days. Even if your child does not have these severe symptoms but you suspect he or she has croup, it's important to visit the doctor and get a diagnosis.

Managing croup

Most of the time, cases of croup are mild and go away within a week. Antibiotics will not help croup because it is caused by a virus, not bacteria. Managing mild cases of croup is very similar to dealing with the common cold:

  • Give your child plenty of fluids.
  • Use a cool-mist humidifier to moisten the air.
  • Use saline drops or a nasal rinse to clear congestion.
  • Create a steam room by leaving the tap or shower running with hot water. Then sit with your child in the bathroom to breathe in the moist air for about 10 to 15 minutes. Keep your child away from the hot water.
  • Give acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help a child with a fever feel more comfortable.
  • Do not give your child over-the-counter cough syrups unless your doctor recommends them.
  • If it's cold, take your child outside – cool or cold air will help make breathing easier.

Lisa Tourountzas